10 Editions of the Global Challenge: discussing the evolution of a vibrant & inclusive deep tech ecosystem with Gemma Milne

10 Editions of the Global Challenge: discussing the evolution of a vibrant & inclusive deep tech ecosystem with Gemma Milne

We sat down with Gemma Milne, Science & Technology Writer, Researcher, Author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors’, Co-host of the Radical Science Podcast, and long-time MC of the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit’s Main “Frontier” Stage! 

Gemma has been active in the deep tech ecosystem for many years. As an international speaker and researcher focusing on the cultural effects of technological and scientific advances, she is always keen to engage and ponder on how we can best use science as a society in the ‘real world’, and best benefit the minds behind it.

Having been involved with Hello Tomorrow over the course of seven editions of our Global Challenge, she has witnessed firsthand its evolution, giving her some foresight into what’s to come! With applications for the 10th edition now open, we were excited to chat with her as we get ready to welcome the next batch of innovators into our community

Gemma Milne: Science & Technology Journalist, Researcher and Author

Can you give us a brief overview of your background, and how you’ve been involved with Hello Tomorrow over the years?

I started out attending the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit as a journalist in 2017. I had a deep interest in science and the different approaches to putting it into the real world. It was during this time that we interviewed Hello Tomorrow for our podcast Science Disrupt, which then changed its name to Radical Science. Later, I was a deep tech startup contributor for Forbes, and also sat on the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 panel for SMEs applying for funding and had other similar advisory roles like assessing grants for Innovate UK or scouting for a VC called Backed VC.

Slowly but surely I got invited to speak on stage at the Global Summit. I was on panels on the topic of how science disrupts, and ethical approaches to science and tech. Now, I’ve been the host and MC of the main “Frontier Stage” since 2019 (minus the year I had a child!). I think I came in at just the right moment, when deep tech was just starting to be called deep tech. We were moving away from tech transfer and the triple helix model of innovation, there was a lot of criticism around university tech transfer offices and the limitations of that process, so naturally I became very interested in what they now call the lab-to-market process. 

Now, I’m an academic. I’m based at Glasgow University and Edinburgh University, looking at the political economy of deep tech, specifically at the different processes in this lab-to-market pipeline. Everything from how it’s funded, the regulations, the hurdles. I’m also particularly interested in where the paradynamics of older industries, or “standard” ways of doing things are still being embedded in these more so-called “disruptive” processes. I’m trying to see where we can take inspiration from other company structures or funding models and apply those to making science “real” in a way that is equitable and just, and not cementing power in existing places.

Hello Tomorrow’s impact on the deep tech ecosystem

How would you describe Hello Tomorrow, and the community that it gathers?

As far as I know, there’s nothing else like it. I can’t find another conference that covers such a broad range. You can find biotech conferences, aerospace conferences, fusion conferences, but you never have everybody in the same room at once, certainly not at the scale that Hello Tomorrow does. Even in the US it’s very hard to find that, an American investor who’s been coming to Hello Tomorrow for years confirmed that to me. 

I think what’s really interesting is that Hello Tomorrow treats everyone as part of the same community, essentially saying “your business models are similar, your approaches are similar, your mindsets are similar, your backgrounds are similar (from an educational standpoint), so we can all learn from one another and create a very valuable community”. We know from decades of research that entrepreneurship thrives from having a rich and ripe ecosystem, and Hello Tomorrow has created that. This idea of “deep tech” can be tricky to define outside of the ecosystem, but once inside Hello Tomorrow, it becomes obvious to everyone there, because it’s an organizing term. For me, the impact Hello Tomorrow has had is the formalization of the term deep tech, and building a vibrant community around it. It creates a link across the sectors that you might not understand if you’ve never been. Like, why would a biotech startup want to talk to a spacetech startup? There are obviously many differences and intricacies within each sector, but they are also all going to have to go through many of the same processes, like regulatory hurdles and establishing their business models, and there are always things they can learn from each other. 

This is the case for investors as well. For better or for worse, we’re moving away from investors who are focused solely on one area to investors who, maybe 10 years ago would have never touched deep tech, but now have started to realise that these IP heavy business models make sense financially, and that they can be found across all sectors. So having access to all these pillars is extremely important.

Women in deep tech: where are we at?

This year, three women-founded startups won the first, second and third prizes of the Hello Tomorrow Global Challenge. Could you share what your experience was witnessing this as the host of our main stage, and its significance for the deep tech ecosystem? 

I was delighted. I have never felt like a minority at Hello Tomorrow as a woman, because there have always been many women there, but the percentage on stage pitching their startups has certainly increased over the years. I certainly have never seen 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes all go to women. Let’s be clear, every startup that’s in those final 10 are already at the top of their game and doing really well, but as we know from plenty of research, even really successful startups face a bias against their women founders when they’re put in front of investors, regardless of how good the company is objectively. So it was a wonder to witness. These are the people who stood up and pitched, these are the voices we heard, and they were the ones chosen.

There is obviously still a lot of work left to do, not just in terms of gender equality but also in terms of inclusion from socio-economic and racial perspectives. For example, we know that PhD’s are generally the entry point to deep tech, and they are very difficult to get access to. If you’ve already made it to Hello Tomorrow, you’ve already got a certain level of access to these things. A lot needs to happen before you can make it to the point of being able to attend the Global Summit as an attendee, and even more so as a startup pitching for the Global Challenge. Your education, background, your level of expertise, your resources to afford to come to Paris, even a visa! So I think there’s a lot more systemic work to be done in making sure we’ve got people coming in the door in the first place. That does not mean there hasn’t been progress, and I can only see it going one way, and that’s positive. I also think Hello Tomorrow is already doing a lot for representation when it comes to curating the stages, and who’s getting their voice heard. Compared to other conferences where, even in 2024, panels are all too often “male, pale and stale” as they say… So, in conclusion I have hope, but there’s a lot of work to be done! 

In your book, Smoke & Mirrors, you discuss the bombastic hype around deep tech trends. How can we avoid the hype about women in deep tech becoming misleading or negative? 

This has always been a challenge because sometimes it can put women in a box, which is not the point. On one hand, we absolutely need to be upfront about the extra challenges women face due to systemic issues; everything from access to industry or education, and the unfortunate reality of imbalance in heterosexual relationships around domestic labor etc., on top of the already challenging task of being in deep tech. But at the same time, we cannot take every woman in deep tech and ask them to talk about their experience as a woman in deep tech, and on top of it ask them about their work. You’re asking extra of them, to both do their work and also be an advocate to change things for other people. A lot of women are happy to do this, but it is extra work that is not asked of men. All of this can be very complex to make sense of. 

For example, I was often asked to sit on panels as a woman in tech in the past. To begin with, I was young and I thought it was cool, an opportunity to talk. But over time I realized that no one was asking me about my work, it was more, “do you find it annoying to wear a dress?”, so I stopped accepting those invites. I also went to a conference years ago that had put a lot of focus on how they had an equal number of male and female speakers on stage, and when I got there, all but one of the female speakers spoke about being a woman. They all had tech jobs, but they were all there to talk about diversity, and not about their jobs. Meanwhile, all the men were talking about their apps, their products, their work. That’s where hype can be an issue, when organizations say they have diversity agendas, but the substance is missing. 

Part of striving for equality is about not treating women differently, and part of it is about accepting that there are differences. It’s complex, but it’s also not complex. These absolutist ideas are what make it complex, because it is systemic and puzzling, and it’s about having an equitable mindset and really thinking about the impact on people’s lives because that’s what gets you closer, not just ticking boxes.

What’s your advice for women founders out there?

What advice would you give to women (and anybody else who might have it a bit harder) seeking to pursue careers in science, technology and innovation? 

Do it. You have permission. I give you permission. I’ve learnt that sometimes we just need the permission of others around us. 

The second thing I suggest is paying attention to and being a part of these conversations if that’s what you you feel provides you with the support and access you were lacking, but if you feel you don’t need this, and you don’t need to be “a woman in…” or a “black person in…” etc. then just be part of groups and communities that make you feel able and empowered, whatever those are. Sometimes this rhetoric can create subconscious complexes where women feel that they need to hold themselves back because they are a woman. So, find the support you need, wherever that may be and however it may look, and just don’t take your eyes off the prize!


Are you a deep tech startup interested to learn more about the Hello Tomorrow Global Challenge? Head here to discover how you could be the next Grand Winner. If you’re an investor, industry leader or member of the deep tech ecosystem interested to learn more about our activities, head here.


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